Recently, while rectifying an excess of “character” in an older home, I was enlisted to install a tile backsplash. The homeowners had just had a beautiful new countertop installed. The old laminate countertop had a 4” backsplash built in, but the new quartz one had only 1”, and in this case, size matters – there was a stretch of mangled wallpaper and dangling trim left behind. The homeowners also wanted an outlet relocated, which involved getting into the wall, and they were tired of the 20-year-old wallpaper, so they decided “while we’re at it…”, and a tile kitchen backsplash job was born.
A backsplash can give your kitchen a sporty new look, and increase its value, without having to rob your kid’s college fund. There are a lot of options available: Porcelain, ceramic or marble tile are common choices, and glass mosaic tiles are hot these days. You can also find metal products, like pressed tin or stainless steel. They all look great, make your spaghetti sauce disaster cleanup a lot easier, and installation is pretty easy.
Preparing To Install A Tile Backsplash
As with most jobs, good prep is key to a successful installation. The walls I was working with were covered with wallpaper. Wallpaper does NOT make for a good bonding surface; if it’s on your target area, make it go away. You need a pretty smooth surface to set your tile on; drywall is fine, as long as it’s clean, dry, and structurally sound (no peeling paper or big chunks missing). If it’s not painted, put a good coat of primer on it, let it dry, and scuff it up a little with heavy-grit sandpaper.
Measure the area you’ll be tiling to figure how many square feet of tile you need. It’s a good idea to add 10-15% extra when you buy it; you’ll likely have some waste from making cuts, and it’s a good idea to have extra in case of breakage, and for future repairs. If there will be exposed edges, either at the ends or on top anywhere (this job had both), you’ll need some trim pieces to give the borders a nice finished appearance. If you’ll be starting or stopping somewhere other than in a corner, draw a plumb line on the wall to mark your boundary. Be sure to account for any trim pieces you’ll be installing.
The other materials you need are thinset mortar, to bond the tiles to the wall, and grout for the gaps between tiles. You can buy pre-mixed tile mastic in a tub, but most pros swear you’ll get a much better job using thinset, particularly if you’re using heavier tile. The thinset comes as a powder, which you mix with water, to give you the mortar you’ll be troweling on. The grout comes the same way, and is available in two basic types: non-sanded, which is generally used for narrow gaps of 1/8” or less, and sanded, for wider spacing. As I explain below, it’s also a good idea to buy the special grout additive to mix it with. If you have questions about what to use for your particular tile/application details, the sales people where you buy the tile will have all the answers.
Speaking of spacing, you may also want to purchase some plastic or rubber spacers in the size you want your spacing to be. Many tiles have built-in spacers, but not all do, and they can be handy for situations like holding up the bottom row, or keeping a space where tiles abut a wall. They’re very cheap, and should be located near the tiling tools and supplies.
A final consideration: if the tile you’re using is fairly thick (these were almost ½” thick), this will affect any light switches or electrical outlets in your path. Wall box extenders are available in different depths, to give a solid surface to re-install your outlets and switches. You may also need longer screws; I did. The screws and extenders are available in the electrical department at any home improvement store. Who knew there’d be so much spacing out, just to install a tile backsplash!
If you don’t have tiling tools, they’re not very expensive, and you can get them at any tile or home improvement store. You’ll need a notched trowel and a grout float. The notched trowels are available with different-sized notches; as a general rule, the bigger and heavier the tile, the bigger the notch. The instructions that come with the tile and/or thinset will tell you the size trowel you need. A serviceable notched trowel can be had for just a few dollars. As for the grout float, get one with an epoxy-rubber type surface. They’re also available in a sort of hard-foam-rubber type material, but they don’t hold up well, and the better ones aren’t much more expensive; expect to pay about $10-14 for a decent one.
The other item you’ll need is a container to mix your thinset and grout in. A plastic tub a few inches deep, and wide enough to accommodate your trowel and grout float, will do the job. If you intend to re-use the tub, clean and rinse it a.s.a.p. when you’re finished with it; both thinset and grout dry hard as a rock.
Planning Your Layout
Since you’re going to all the trouble to install a tile backsplash, you want it to look as good as possible when the dust settles. Full tiles look better than cut tiles, so plan your layout so that the most visible areas have full tiles. Every kitchen is a little different, but look at yours and think about which areas are most likely to be noticeable. The area right above the sink or behind the stove, for example, gets more eyeball time than a corner wall under the cabinets.
The job in this example had an L-shaped layout. Both ends would be fairly visible; one was at the end of a counter, but on a wall that continued on, and the other was right up against some window trim by the sink. The walls met at a corner under some cabinets, so that was the most logical place to disguise the cut pieces. The tiles for this job were varied in height—one, two and three inch high tiles. This made it easy to design a layout that would require no horizontal cuts. If the height of your layout requires tiles to be cut to fit, the top row, right under the cabinets, is where to make the cuts. No one will be able to see them except kids, and most kids probably won’t be that critical of your tiling technique. If they are, ground ‘em!
Let’s Set Some Tile!
Once your prep work is done, your layout is planned, and you have your tools and materials all neatly arranged and patiently waiting, it’s time to leap into action. But first, one more prep step: tile work is messy. You’ll be dropping some amount of thinset and grout onto the countertop, stove, sink, or whatever surface is convenient. This can cause staining or scratches, which some people find unattractive; if you are among them, protect your surfaces. No need to get too elaborate, a few layers of newspaper works fine. Add some painter’s tape around the edges to hold it in place, and to keep the goop off your edges and any adjacent trim.
Before you mix the mortar, get your tile ready. If you’ll need any partial tiles at the beginning, make the cuts now. The tile I was using came in roughly one-foot-square sheets on a mesh backing, and was a staggered subway pattern. Each end had protruding pieces every other row, so to get a straight edge at the beginning, some trimming was necessary. Trimming tile is possible with a manual cutter, but it’s much easier with a wet saw. You can rent one from any tool rental place, and if you think there will be more tiling in your future, you can buy a homeowner’s version that does a good job for about $89 from Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Now it’s time to make the mud! Rather than mix it all up at once, I like to mix smaller batches of thinset, so it doesn’t dry out and stiffen up too much. It only takes a couple of minutes to mix it, and that takes the pressure off, so you won’t be rushing to get all the tile up before the mortar is unusable. I usually put most of the water in first, add the thinset powder and mix it up, then add more water until I get the consistency I need – roughly that of thick peanut butter.
Finally, the moment of truth in your quest to install a tile backsplash – time to get some tile on the wall! Get a good bit of mortar on the notched edge of the trowel, and spread it across the wall, holding the trowel at a slight angle. Do a small section at a time, maybe two to three feet wide, and make sure you don’t leave any big gaps. If there are areas where it’s hard to get the mortar spread, you can also “back-butter” the tile – just cover the back of the tile with mortar, then run the notches through it to get good coverage.
Start with the bottom row. You’ll want to leave a space at the bottom, to fill with either grout or caulk, so lay out some of your cheapo spacers underneath. Make sure your first row is level and plumb; the success of your project, and possibly the very survival of the planet, hinges on this. Now, just keep adding tiles, working upward and to the side. Push the tiles firmly into place, but don’t use too much force; if the tiles are a little off, you can wiggle them and slide them a bit pretty easily. A spacer may be needed here and there to keep an obstinate tile in position.
If you get to a point where cuts are needed, for the top row or around an outlet, for example, you can either make the cuts right then, or continue on with all the full pieces and then come back for the finicky stuff. That’s how I roll when I install a tile backsplash; I get the majority done, then come back and fill in the missing pieces at the end. If you do, make sure you scrape off the mortar from the spots you’re skipping; when you’re ready, you can back-butter the remaining pieces and stick them into position. Once all the tiles are in place, stand back and gaze in awe at what you have created! Then get your butt in gear and clean your tools; if you let the tub and trowel sit too long, you’ll be very unhappy with the results.
Tying It All Together – On With The Grout
The tile is up and looking good, but there’s more to be done. The grout you chose will fill in all those unsightly gaps between tiles, and give your project a really nice, finished look. You need to make sure the tiles are completely set before grouting; the instructions on the thinset will tell you how long to wait, usually about 24 hours. Mixing the grout is much the same as mixing the thinset; smaller batches help keep it from hardening up too quickly in the pan.
Most grouts can be mixed with water, but for a few dollars you can buy a container of a water-based, low-VOC additive, such as GroutOnce. The manufacturer claims this will create a sealed grout that is crack resistant, mold and mildew resistant, water repellent, stain resistant, and harder and denser. If you don’t use a grout additive, you should apply some type of sealer after the grout has fully cured, to prevent stains, mold, etc. This is especially important in a kitchen, where it’s only a matter of time ‘til SOMETHING gets splattered on the wall. Note: grouting is ALSO messy. Make sure you re-do your protective measures with fresh tape and newspaper.
To apply the grout, get a batch on the float, hold it at an angle, and swipe it diagonally across the tiles, pushing the grout into the gaps. Then follow up at a slightly different angle, to make sure all the cracks are filled, and to remove some of the excess grout. Keep going until all the gaps are filled.
After the grout has set up for 20-30 minutes, take a damp sponge and go over the surface and clean off the excess grout. Be careful not to have the sponge too wet, or go over the surface too aggressively; you don’t want to dig out all your beautiful grout. Change your water when it gets dirty and gritty. Wait a couple of hours, and repeat the process. Before the grout gets too dry, make sure you remove the tape along the edges, or the grout will harden around it.
Several hours later, when the grout is pretty dry, you’ll be left with a bit of haze on the tile. Take a soft rag (an old towel or a Backstreet Boys t-shirt will work nicely) and buff off the haze. Before getting your newly-installed work of art too wet – with water or spaghetti sauce – it’s best to let it cure at least a couple of days.
And that’s it, your desire to install a tile backsplash has come to fruition! Now just sit back, and soak up the compliments from your friends, family, and connoisseurs of fine workmanship, as you contemplate what your NEXT project should be. (On the job I did, the homeowner was going to finish up removing the wallpaper and painting the trim). Got a pic of a backsplash YOU created, or some tips for working with tile? Share them with us!